Described as the “Mexican Phoenix”, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is nowadays recognisable as the face which adorns the Mexican 200 peso bill. Born in the 17th century, Juana was one of the most important polymaths of her time. However, her legacy faded shortly after her death and she remained in relative obscurity until the revival of her work by the poet Octavio Paz. Nowadays, her work in the fields of theology, linguistics, poetry, playwriting and music are receiving the attention they deserve.
Born out of wedlock to a Spanish father and Criolla mother, Juana used to sneak into the nearby chapel to read. Unable to access a formal education, she taught herself how to read and write in Spanish, Latin and Nahuatl before moving to Mexico City to enter the court of the Viceroy. The rumours of Sor Juana’s intellectual capabilities were legendary, and at the age of 17, she was summoned to prove herself to a council of over 40 men, which she did “in the manner that a royal galleon might fend off the attacks of a few canoes”, according to the Viceroy. Her opposition to the idea of marriage and her demand for intellectual stimulation led her to choose a life as a nun. After entering the convent, Juana led a life surrounded by books and with enough free time to read and write at leisure. In 1693, threatened with censure after writing a critique of a priest’s sermon, Juana ceased to write and died 2 years later while attending to her fellow nuns during an outbreak of plague.
Sor Juana is considered an important protofeminist figure. Her writing is full of feminist ideas more than a century before the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Through a modern feminist lens, Sor Juana recognises the importance of the ideal found in Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own. The only way she could secure both money to write and a room of one’s own was to deny herself the pleasures of life and confine herself to the four walls of a convent.
Not only her genius, but also her pure love of knowledge itself goes virtually unparalleled in the history of polymaths and savants. For her love of knowledge, Juana Inés gave up her freedom.